A short, recent history of baby advice and psycho-babble 1970-2016

  • By Robin Barker
  • 20 Jan, 2017

As Dr Spock famously said:

'You know more than you think you do'

The 1970s

Until the 1970s, baby advice was straightforward and simple, if a trifle bossy and prescriptive and somewhat overladen with scary warnings about spoiling baby.

I sometimes wonder if this was preferable to the loaded warnings parents - mostly mothers - are deluged with now about making sure they respond adequately to their babies' needs to ensure the optimum flow of attachment from mother to baby.

In the first half of last century mothers were too busy with basic household jobs and running homes on strict budgets to get overly excited about the possibility of attachment problems from putting a sleepless baby in the laundry for a few hours so everyone could get some sleep.
Ditto tying a toddler to the clothesline while they dealt with boiling the nappies in the copper.

The 'parenting' word, and all its subsequent manifestations, arrived sometime during the 1970s and was taken up with gusto.

Prior to the noun morphing into the verb, people had babies, became parents and raised their children. Some - many in fact - did it well, others not so well and still others rather badly.

There have always been appalling parents and despite a vastly improved standard of living in countries like Australia and gallant attempts in the last 100 years to turn this around, appalling parents are still with us.
I'm writing about truly appalling parents here - neglectful, abusive, absent - not having a shot at the vast majority of conscientious parents doing a good job, sometimes in trying and difficult circumstances.

Variations on the 'parenting' word illustrate the spectrum of conflicting advice conscientious parents must work their way around:

Attachment parenting, profound attachment parenting, detachment parenting, mother-led parenting, baby-led parenting, calendar parenting, helicopter parenting, free-range parenting, night-time parenting, intuitive parenting, permissive parenting, authoritative parenting and authoritarian parenting (spot the difference between the last two).

In baby's first year the over-riding theme between conflicting 'parenting styles' and their proponents can be summarised as 'never pick the baby up'   versus 'never put the baby down' .

This has reached a manic stage today where opposing advisors and parents face off and sling mud at each other in a manner similar to politicians at election time.

Pick your parenting

Detachment parenting; helicopter parenting; attachment parenting writ large
detachment parenting # helicopter parenting # attachment parenting writ large

The 1980s

  • Penelope Leach, a British research psychologist moves in on Dr Spock and, deciding mother has been the boss for too long, promotes baby-led mothering.
  • Reflux is a blip on the horizon.
  •  Zantac and Losic are unheard of - Merbentyl is the answer to every mother’s prayer.
  •  Camomile tea is de rigueur for what is known as mild colic, often in combination with gripe water on the dummy, however a few doctors are still prescribing the 1940s solution for colic, phenobarbitone and atropine. Who knows what it does for colic but as it puts babies into catatonic states it certainly stops them from crying.
  •  The standard advice for breastfeeding is ten minutes on each breast.
  •  Foremilk and hindmilk don’t exist.
  •  Long chain fatty acids are unheard of as is follow-on formula, toddler formula, reflux formula, low lactose formula and hyper-allergenic formula all created over the next couple of decades by infant formula manufacturers largely in response to the normal idiosyncratic behaviour of babies.
  • Manufacturers - mostly unchallenged - advertise their formula on the subtle premise that their specialised products are the answer to crying, sleeplessness, throwing up, loose poo, grunting, rashes and unsolvable breastfeeding problems.
  • Formula companies deliver truck-loads of free 'samples' to hospitals, doctors, paediatricians and child and family health nurses for them to 'try out'.
  • Maureen Minchin's declaration that infant formula is the largest uncontrolled invivo experiment of the 20th century deserves serious consideration. ( Milk Matters: Infant feeding & immune disorder, Maureen Minchin, 2015, Book/POD, Amazon.com)
  • Soy formula is a miracle especially loved by the anti-immunisation alternative crowd. It stops crying babies from crying, makes mucous disappear and turns runny poo into bricks overnight.
Pedalling false hope
  • Every second baby is put into double nappies at the faintest click of a hip which doubles the laundry load and rules out single-use nappies. Most babies prescribed double nappies don't need them and for the ones that do it turns out that double nappies are of no use at all. Properly diagnosed hip dysplasia requires a harness.
  • Mothers are encouraged to sleep babies on their tummies.
  •   Our Babies , a New South Wales government booklet first published in 1904, remains in print and still offers bottle fed babies the option of cow’s milk mixtures rather than formula. Some mothers, concerned by the increasing experimental complexity of infant formula, continue to use the recipes as they say that making up their own mixtures means they know exactly what their babies are getting.

(How simple it was in 1941)
Boiled water.....................2oz
Sugar of milk...................2½ teaspoons
Cane sugar........................1½ teaspoons
Our Babies, 1941
(NSW Dept of Public Health
Maternal and Baby Welfare Division)

Throughout the eighties baby psychobabble, led by US paediatrician William Sears, takes off (or over):

  “The parents who are most frustrated by high-need babies have difficulty unloading the baggage of a control mind-set"
 William Sears
, The Baby Book : Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two

  “A newborn who is used to this cue-response network learns to trust her care-giving environment.”
 William Sears
, The Baby Book : Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two

Baby-care now has its own lexicon which is enthusiastically taken up and passed on to parents by their baby advisors:

High need babies, classic reflux, silent reflux, control crying, modified control crying, comfort settling, controlled comforting, responsive settling, responsive nurturing, dummy dependent, breast dependent, sharing sleep, co-sleeping, baby-wearing…

The 1990s

  • Lactogen, once promoted as the closest thing to mother’s milk, disappears.
  •  Maltogen disappears.
  •  Camomile tea is banned.
  •  Merbentyl is banned.
  • The alcohol is removed from gripe water (but the sugar remains).
  •  Mylanta and Prepulsid take over.
  •  Mothercraft becomes parentcraft as men decide to get in on the act and make up for past sins. Bumper stickers with ‘fathers can breastfeed too’ are sited in Byron.
  •  Lactation consultants suddenly appear on the scene.
  •  Lactation consultants rule.
  • Sadly, someone discovers that breasts produce foremilk and hindmilk which causes no end of distress for mothers who imagine they are kept in separate compartments in their breasts and woe betide if they fail to activate one or the other and their baby 'only gets the foremilk'.
    Or the hindmilk.
  • Alarmingly, mothers are told to leave their babies on the breast until they drop off.
  • Even more alarmingly, every second mother is diagnosed with thrush in the ducts a most unlikely diagnosis for young, healthy women.
  •  Candida reaches plague proportions. Every second breastfeeding mother is put on the candida diet.
  • Grated carrot, nasturtium leaves and Daktarin Oral jel replace and tinc benz co and gentian violet on nipples.
                How come breastfeeding is promoted as being easy??
  • Lactose intolerance is endemic for both breastfed and formula-fed babies.
  • Lactose-free formula replaces soy as the miracle milk for crying babies of the nineties.
  •  Mandatory tummy time becomes the order of the day.
  •  Crying babies are now called refluxy not colicky.
  • *Tummy sleeping is discouraged, babies must now sleep on their backs (or sides).
    A crucial re-adjustment as it turns out ( see end section ).
  •  Prepulsid is banned.
  • Zantac and Losic step up.
  •  Cow’s milk becomes a form of poison drops of which should not cross babies' lips for the whole of the first year.
  •  The use of formula is extended until adolescence.


  • Who's Benjamin Spock, Penelope Leach, Robin Barker? Amazon.com has over 20,000 'parenting' titles. At least 10,000 cover baby's first year.
  • Baby/toddler sleep anxiety reaches new heights. Sleep and what parents choose to do or not to do about it not only becomes the benchmark for assessing parental virtue and skill but a way of predicting the future outcomes -  personalities, intelligence, career prospects - of their sleepless babies.
  • Food intolerance and allergies increase at alarming rates - delay all food until school age.
  • Back-sleeping only strictly advised; unlike most of the flim-flam of the last few decades this measure turns out to be crucial in saving babies' lives.*( see end section ).


  • Early development rules - it’s all over in the first three years so get your baby/toddler off to baby gym, second-language class, musical appreciation and whatever other educational activities you can fit in to your day.
  • On the other hand, forget about potty training.
  • The withholding of food (and restriction of various foods) for the first six to 12 months, as has been advised for the last 20 years, now seems to be a leading factor causing the food allergies and intolerance rather than preventing them. Go back to offering food at four months without any restrictions, which is what we all did in the sixties and seventies. Ho-hum.
  • Strangely, what goes round comes round, the pendulum swings and practices of a hundred years ago– strict routines, drop the night feeds by eight weeks, baby potty training - are sneaking back.
Here are a few things that have really made an enduring positive impact on the health, welfare and development of small humans. Even though their benefits have been enormous there's a tendency to take them for granted or even to dismiss them out of hand in favour of snake oil and the loopy theories that wax and wane as fashion and faith-healing win out over science.  
  • Immunisation – a modern miracle.
  • Antibiotics.
  • *Research into sudden infant death syndrome has cut infant deaths from SIDS by 80% percent. Many factors are involved but sleeping babies on their backs rather than on their tummies or sides is a crucial recommendation arising out of scientific research and investigations into SIDS.
  • Early testing via a heel prick soon after birth has enabled early diagnosis and treatment of complex medical conditions that previously caused death and delayed development.
  • Reliable contraception.
  • Serious attention to diagnosing, treating and helping women with postnatal depression.
  • Expertly designed infant restraints in cars based on extensive research and many trials.
  • Overall, child safety research, knowledge, recommendations and regulations re safety of equipment have contributed enormously to the health and welfare of babies and toddlers.
  • Prenatal testing and diagnosis - particularly early diagnosis of renal malfunction.
  • Premature baby care.
  • Surgery for neonatal and paediatric conditions that once caused disabilities or early deaths.
  • Treatment for ‘glue’ ear.
  • Sun protection.
  • Finally, all the ‘simple’ things we take for granted, a lack of which still cause preventable deaths and disability in many parts of the world, and in some parts of Australia:
    Sewerage, drainage, safe toilets, clean water, refrigeration, safe cooking appliances, electricity and hand-washing are but a few.

    And what have amber beads, herbal colic syrup, homeopathic 'immunisation', rivers of commercial fruit juice, toddler formula, tea-tree mattresses, vitamin lozenges, baby signing, what is known as 'attachment parenting'(as opposed to attachment theory, more on that in another post), organic anything contributed?

    Not a lot.


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